Race to the Bottom

by Seth Shostak

Planets are like insurance premiums: smaller is usually better. But better worlds are in short supply.

As I write this, a total of 347 exoplanets – worlds orbiting other stars – have been reported in the scientific literature.  This roster is expanding at roughly one planet a week, and it’s a decidedly beefy crowd.  Many exoplanets are comparable in mass to Jupiter, and the biggest is nearly eight thousand times as hefty as Earth. Such bulky orbs are likely to be wrapped in thick, malodorous atmospheres: hardly the type of place that ET would be pleased to call home.

But what about those smaller, better worlds, at the bottom of the heap?  Are there any lightweights among the exoplanet crowd? 

Well, there’s Gliese 581e, which weighs in at a mere 1.9 times the tonnage of Earth, and is the least massive exoplanet known to circle an ordinary star.  If the density of this planet is similar to that of terra firma, then its diameter is a mere 24% greater than the world under your feet.

Last month’s discovery of Gliese 581e was a big deal.  News stories lead with the titillating tidbit that, based on its size, this planet could be a sibling of Earth, hinting that it might be suitable for life.  Buried about five paragraphs into the text was the less cheering fact that Gliese 581e orbits only 3 million miles from its home star. Admittedly, that sun is far fainter than our own, but given this planet’s proximity Gliese 581e will be baked in starlight as strong as that which shines on Venus. It’s not Shangri La.

Gliese 581e is no cousin of Earth.  But there’s a race underway to find such cousins, and a winner may cross the finish line in the next thousand days.

If that happens, kudos should go to new instruments – for example, HARPS.  That sounds like a music club for angels, but the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher is in fact a spectrograph mounted on the 3.6 m telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.  HARPS is able to sense stellar wobbles with stunning accuracy, and is the device that uncovered Gliese 581e.  Back in 1995, when astronomers grabbed headlines with the discovery of a planet around the star 51 Pegasi, they were able to measure a star’s back-and-forth shaking to within 5 meters per second, or roughly the speed of a bicycle. Today, HARPS can easily perceive shakes as small as 1 meter per second, and is approaching an accuracy of one-third that speed.  Eventually, it might reach 10 cm per second, or the pace of an ant.  For comparison, the Sun’s wobble due to Earth is about 3 cm per second.

While wobble-watching experiments are already out of the gate and down the track, the favorite in the exoplanet horse race is NASA’s Kepler mission, which just began its four-year reconnaissance for small worlds. Kepler’s designers expect the telescope to eventually find dozens of Earth’s doppelgangers – planets that are not merely the same size as our own, but in orbits that would grace them with salubrious temperatures: in other words, worlds that could boast of thick atmospheres and watery oceans.

The bottom line is that the discovery of a true analog to Earth is so close; researchers already feel its hot breath.  But if such a planet is found, will the public care? 

Gauging from the enthusiasm that greeted the discovery of Gliese 581e, the answer is emphatically yes.  My in-box will be flooded with emails urging that our SETI experiments target the new world, and of course we’ll do that.  But keep this in mind: a single Earth-like planet (or even several dozen) is like a single kiss – it’s not enough.  Terra firma has been around for 4.6 billion years, but life clever enough to transmit signals into space has been walking Earth’s surface for less than a century.  If you’re sanguine enough to believe that we’ll continue to be technologically proficient for another 10 thousand years, then the fraction of our planet’s lifetime during which someone was “on the air” on Earth will have been no more than two parts in a million.

If this estimate is even roughly typical of other worlds, then we’ll need to aim our radio antennas in the directions of 500 thousand Earth-like planets to have a decent chance of hearing anyone.  That may sound daunting, but new instruments – such as the Allen Telescope Array – can pull that off in two decades’ time, if Earth-like worlds are common.

The data that will tell us whether that latter assumption is true – and thereby answer a question as old as upright hominids – are rushing our way.


Shostak is author of “Confessions of an Alien Hunter”